I Sew

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In our house, someone was always sewing. My mom sewed everything. Her machine was seriously old, and had no working feed dogs (the little treads that pull the fabric through the machine as the stitches are made). It wasn't until I went to college and got my own machine that I learned that feed dogs are not just a luxury — you aren't supposed to have to pull your own fabric "evenly" through your machine. But I didn't know that back then. That's what we had. And my mom is a trooper. She still wears hard contact lenses, and thinks they're fine. The machine was in my parents' room. My mom had a sewing machine and an ironing board, my dad had a tank of piranhas. I think this says a whole lot about them. But there was no room for any of it to go anywhere else.

I was a very crafty kid, and we had a very tiny, very crafty, very drafty old house in a very old, very beautiful suburb of Chicago called River Forest. Our neighborhood was preppy and traditional, but my parents were not. My father was a working musician, and his band regularly practiced in the basement. He loved Grace Slick and the Eagles, and worked as a commercial artist during the day. My mom stayed home with us, and she was always doing something crafty — sewing, but also embroidery, crewelwork, needlepoint, cake decorating, macrame, bread-dough-crafts, beading, whatever she wanted. For most of my childhood, we were allowed to have refined sugar only on Sundays — the rest of the week they ground wheat at the dining room table to bake bread, grew vegetables, and made us drink a tablespoon of cod-liver oil mixed into a glass of apple cider every morning (seriously nasty). I can hardly remember a vacation we took in twenty years where we didn't camp. I learned to hike and shoot a gun. We watched a lot of TV in our family. It was never, ever quiet in our house. Ever. Sewing was just one of these things that our family did. It was no big deal. It was more about having things than it was about sewing. I wanted the clothes. My mom, my sisters, me — we all loved clothes. We loved picking out clothes and thinking about clothes. Mom made us new outfits for almost every holiday. Here's Christmas, probably . . . 1977?


Cute. I was all about the long dress. That one was made of a gauzy fabric, with a hand-embroidered heart. I remember many, many times wanting something at the department store — most memorably a dark-green velvet vest and long skirt trimmed with calico from Weiboldt's — and my mom would study it, and then we would go to the fabric store and get the stuff to make it, and she would sew a version that was just as good, but also a fraction of the price. We did that dozens and dozens of times. We had a lot of clothes. I thought they were all awesome. I know there are more pictures somewhere, but my mom probably has them. Here's the riding jacket I needed for my first horse show. It had a velveteen collar and I was really proud of it:


Awesome. My first ribbon, fifth place: The best day of my life! (I totally remember thinking that when this picture was taken. "This is the best day of my whole entire life!") I hadn't known I'd had the capacity for such joy.

I went off to college and I had a very simple sewing machine of my own there — my parents must have given it to me for high-school graduation. My roommates were much more like me than my high-school friends had been, and we all lived in a little cottage where we made stuff all the time — ceramics, dinner parties, quilts, dresses. My life there was more peaceful than it had ever been. I loved school. In the summertime, when I was home from school, it was back to crazytown. My sisters and I shared a weird U-shaped room on the second floor. I don't think our parents came in our room for ten years. It was a MESS. But it was all ours. We had no closets. We had a huge second-floor deck that looked over the back yard. We'd sit up there with our friends and "lay out" (meaning "tan," and I have to put that in quotes because I doubt anyone does it on purpose anymore. But we Ieronemos were championship tanners.) I had a queen-sized futon, and I'd do everthing on it, including eat dinner, entertain friends, and sew. I'd set my sewing machine on the floor in front of it and sew while sitting on the futon and eating Domino's cheese pizza and watching Beverly Hills, 90210. The sewing machine would actually be below me by a few inches and the foot pedal would be about three feet away, also on the floor, and I'd stretch my leg out to reach it. Makes my back hurt just thinking about it. And it was DAMN HOT in there. Chicago summer — no air conditioning. It was a point of pride with my father — he wouldn't get air conditioning. Twenty-eight years in the same house, and fans. Have you ever lived in Chicago in August? The humidity makes your head want to explode. You go to bed sweating and you wake up sweating. Instead of central air, he eventually installed a gigantic attic fan; you'd flick a switch and these big shutters in the ceiling would open and this enormous airplane-hanger fan would turn on and (supposedly — we never believed it) suck all the hot air out of the house. But really it would just be deafeningly loud, just as hot, and now our stupid sewing-pattern papers were blowing all over the place. God did I ever hate that fan. I sort of miss those days, though. It was like that for years and years and years. It seemed like it would always be like that, there. It's how I always think of home, that girl-warren of halter tops, horse books, cordless phones, sandals, Grateful Dead bootlegs, video games (my sister Susie was a genius gamer), make-up, friendly-jungle sheets and rose-covered duvets all over the place, piles of fabric and pattern pieces (my sisters sewed, too), pins in the carpet, people walking across your bed to get to theirs. It was chaos. I've written about the room before (and there's a bad partial picture of it) here.

But I always loved sewing, and I made myself probably twenty dresses, and my mom made me probably twenty more. I wore a lot of dresses. Mini-dresses, Laura Ashley–type dresses (with Doc Martens, natch), slip dresses, gingham dresses, waif dresses, dresses that made me look like an Italian nun (the gray with the Peter Pan collar), wool dresses that I wore with thigh-high tights, Liberty of London dresses made from fabric bought at the Amish fabric store in Kalona, Iowa (which sadly no longer exists). I had the cutest dresses in the world. I sold almost all of them for $5 each at my garage sale in Missoula in 1997. I know. I can't even talk about it. I seriously don't know what I was thinking, except that I had been carrying around a lot of dresses for a lot of years and I had a closet the size of a school locker. Here's a dress, circa 1988, from when I had, as Blair says, Melancholy Tree Syndrome:


Oh DEAR. It strikes nineteen-year-olds particularly hard. Somehow I recovered. You can see, anyway, that I still have the same taste in fabric twenty years later.

So, okay. After college, I moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Champaign, Illinois, with my college roommate, Ann, who left for graduate school in Chicago before the lease was up, so I suddenly had two rooms to myself. It was the first time I'd ever lived alone. I moved my bed into her old room (the apartment was on the second floor of an old, white farmhouse and it was adorable — Ann's room was painted a glowy warm pale pink with white trim, and she had pretty wood floors) and kept my sewing stuff in my old bedroom. And suddenly, without even trying, my sewing improved like that. Overnight. For the first time, I was able to leave everything out, even if I wasn't finished. I didn't have to spend a half an hour cleaning up everything just so I could sleep on my workspace. Suddenly, I was making things I'd never been able to make before. It was amazing. I only lived there for a few more months, but I never forgot that phenomenon. Conditions matter.

I moved back to Chicago, kissed Andy Paulson for the first time on August 24, 1992 [cue flashing strobe-lights and fog horn], and then we moved together to Missoula, Montana, where we lived in a studio apartment together and had a Murphy bed that pulled out of the wall. We moved a table in order to pull the bed out. I still sewed on my little Singer, lugging it out, along with the ironing board, and putting it away several times a week. In grad school, I took a flat-pattern drafting class at the university as an elective, and that was awesome. I made my wedding dress, which was almost as big as the apartment. Then we moved to Portland, I got hit by a truck, my parents sold the River Forest house and moved here, and then, a couple years later, Andy and I bought this little house, which had a painter's studio that was built as an addition by the previous owner. That sealed the deal for me:


As I've said, don't hate me because it's beautiful. I really did pay my dues, I swear. (My sewing machine is just outside the picture on the lower right, in front of that white chair.)

I realize, after re-reading this, that sewing, for me, is as much about space as anything else. Weird. I didn't know I was going to write about that.

I finished the tiny yellow dress yesterday, and I'll show you that and tell you some of my thoughts about the specifics of sewing tomorrow. I just thought you should know where I was coming from.


cupcake61 says: July 23, 2009 at 10:40 AM

I just love this post! You are such an inspiration and that sewing room of yours is what hooked me on your blog! I'll never forget the first time I saw it (in Romantic Homes I believe)...I cut it out and put it with my "favorite things."
Thanks for sharing so much of yourself.

Wonderful story. As always you have given me much inspiration; I truly enjoy your writing. Thanks for sharing.

Debbie Myrick says: July 23, 2009 at 10:48 AM

In spite of the fact that I am a generation older than you, your sewing story is incredibly like mine. Sewed all the time as a teenager making things I would see in the stores, sewed a lot for volume of clothing and loved having 18 skirts, etc. My mother however didn't sew a stitch and found all the mess appalling. I have spent my entire adult life with many, many projects on the go. I would feel incomplete without my stash of cotton prints to finger through and dream about. Love your blog, book and Andy Paulson stories. Happy rest of the summer.

Having a space to sew, without having to put everything away, makes a HUGE difference. I've suffered without for a long, until just 2 months ago ...

Wow, what a great post!!! GREAT space, and beautiful flowers.

wow, do i ever adore you...

Thank you.
This is your story about sewing, and it's so much more. May I call you my friend? Just reading this post, listening to your story, has pulled me out out of my space and given me a breather from "me." I feel like I've been sitting on the porch with a friend and I feel better for it.

What a lovely and beautiful read - thank you for sharing! :)

I love your post and your story and your pictures and your sewing room. Very inspiring and happy. Thanks.

How lovely; just lovely!

(Drop waist dresses; I remember them well!)

What a lovely break to have from editing . . . oh, wait, whoops. Better get back to it.

You'll have the ms. back TODAY!

I love this story. I think what many people don't understand is that when you sew, or you're generally kind of crafty, it's often not just something that you get in one fell swoop. It's an evolution...the conditions in your life lead you to this place.

Thank you for bringing us along on your journey of 'where you came from'. The pictures are fabulous, and even the words alone weave the story clearly, they are so descriptive. I would buy your book on growing up sewing should you ever write it, just for the storytelling. Heartfelt and warm and making me feel cozy, thank you! Look forward to hearing more.

That table raised on bricks to make it bar or counter height is brilliant. Like seriously "oohhh wish I'd thought of that" brilliant!

oh my goodness: the attic fan. we had one too, in a house on the plains of kansas with all the bedrooms upstairs, along with all the hot air in the summer. and we'd sit there completely unable to finish a sentence because it was too hot inside and even hotter outside until someone would have the grand idea of switching on the attic fan, when we were to pretend that it actually felt cooler and by no means was it sucking in all the dust from the dirt road out front. the attic fan claimed the lives of birds and rodents and an entire nest of wasps over the years and eventually needed to be repaired. the repair man went into the attic, stepped toward the fan and promptly fell through the ceiling into the hall.
within a month, we had central air, and it was the most glorious summer ever.

(and also, your entire post is beautiful - not just the attic fan.)

Great post. I love your writing style. It makes me feel like I'm listening to my best friend talk.

This is a lovely post, and touches on something I've been thinking about a lot. My grandmother's sewing area was carved out of a den -- my grandfather built in shelves and a table for her. In my own house growing up, my mother had a dedicated sewing room -- a funny little half-thought-through addition with terrible heating but great light and tons of storage.

I do my sewing at my desk (when the grad school papers are shunted aside) or at the kitchen table. Somehow it feels like I'm not giving the craft the proper respect, to be crowded and cramped. But that's okay. I just know to look for a craft room in the next house.

Yes, it is about the journey and the space! This was a delightful post. And Shimelle - I laughed out loud.

What a lovely post. You must get this down into a book x

kathleen says: July 23, 2009 at 11:28 AM

Interesting post it brings back memories of my youth in northern Indiana sharing 1 room with my two sisters and no air conditioning. No one had that back in those days. I agree its all about space. I've had my own "office" now for 10 years and love it. I will have one in my next house also. I always tell people that if you have a place to keep the sewing machine out with all of your sewing accessories you will sew more.

Wow! What a great story!

And eep! I don't think I've ever seen a photo of your workspace...it's gorgeous!

You are so right on the space thing...I have just got a craft room after wanting one for years, and although it is still cramped and disorganised (filled with nearly 10 years worth of hoarded fabric, trimmings etc) it has already made such a difference. My level of happiness has shot up thanks to having a special space in which to do my work. It's pretty too which helps. That photo of you in the drop waisted dress is stunning.

Thanks so much for your personal story. The "I grew up sewing" statement is part of my autobiography as well. And when I moved to our current house and the laundry room was big enough to double as a sewing room, I was overjoyed! I love this photo of your sewing room. I've seen pictures of it before, and what I like is not only that it's beautiful, but it's realistic as well, evidenced by cement blocks raising the table to the right height! In the end, you gotta love practical!

This was so beautifully written.
I'm moving out of my first apartment next week and while moving back in with my mother is kind of depressing, the *giant* dining room table that will become my sewing space is so exciting. I've been sewing on a tv tray for the past 5 years, between living in a dorm and living in this tiny apartment. So I understand why space is so important. Everything will be so much easier with a large designated space that the quality is bound to improve.
Thanks for sharing!

This was probably one of my favorite stories of yours. I admire the aspect of sewing and crafting things with your own hands so very much. I only have a tiny speck of it myself and I inherited it from my Grandma and from my mother. In fact, my Grandma still (going strong at 91 years of age) sews on her foot-cranked Singer! The same machine I learned to sew on. And she hand sews, knits, crochets, embroiders. She says life would be meaningless if she hadn't got sewing. Something to do.
Thank you for sharing this story about where you're coming from.

when you publish your memoir, entitled SEW, i will buy it. i will promote it. i will read it. over and over. even if it turns into a treatise on fly fishing or duck hunting or coon skin caps. even if it's about square dancing culture in the dakotas. i. will. not. care.
go write it. go write it now.
i'll be right here waiting.
someone loves you in los angeles. i think it's me.

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About Alicia Paulson


My name is Alicia Paulson
and I love to make things. I live with my husband and daughter in Portland, Oregon, and design sewing, embroidery, knitting, and crochet patterns. See more about me at aliciapaulson.com




Since August of 2011 I've been using a Canon EOS 60D with an EF 18-200mm kit lens and an EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens.